Friday, September 29, 2006


"No matter how visual your setting and scenery, like a play, the book doesn't come alive until the characters walk onstage."

Carol Dawson said that during a panel discussion I attended a few years ago at the Art and Soul Symposium at Baylor University . How true! I bet in the majority of books that are memorable to you--no matter what the genre--what you remember most are the characters. And it holds true, maybe even more so, for scripts.

At this point, someone might stop me and argue that characters are more fully developed in mainstream novels, and less so in a genre like action/adventure. The truth is, all stories are driven by characters. But structure and character have to be balanced, although not necessarily equally.

An action/adventure character may seem simpler so as not to detract from the action and plot intricacies. Even so, a thriller plot is created out of choices characters make and action characters take. On the other hand, most mainstream novels require complexity of characters because of their introspection. We're more likely to get inside their heads, think what they think, feel what they feel. Through them, we learn who they are, and, in turn, gain insight into the human psyche.

In both cases, though, characters are what bring the story alive. Betsy Cox, during the same panel discussion in Waco, said, "Let go of your characters so they come alive. If they don't surprise the writer, they won't surprise the reader." As a writer, what you're doing is putting your characters under pressure. The decisions they make, the actions they take, reveal who they are. You'll notice I said the characters take the action and make the choices, not you, the writer. Know the people of your story well enough that you can let them go to live and act independently of you. That's not to say, let them run amok and stray too far from the boundaries of your story. But, pay attention to them, let them speak in their own voices, do and think what is true to their character.

Scriptwriters are always talking about "character arc"-- what the character gains and how he changes due to his/her involvement in the story. Novelists also have to be aware of this arc. Characters are more than just physical descriptions; they're emotions and thoughts and actions. If your story doesn't alter them in some way by the climax, then why are you telling it? As readers, if we don't feel as though that character breathes and burps and makes her own decisions, then why are we reading the book? And will we bother to buy the next one?

Flesh out your characters. Let the reader understand them, identify with them. Let the reader hear the character's voice. Different characters have different voices, all distinct from the writer's. All stories, no matter the genre, have twists and turns. Characters do things that a reader wouldn't do, but that make sense for that character. They may surprise the reader--and sometimes the writer--with their thoughts and attitudes, their choices and actions, their feelings and beliefs.

As Jack Butler said, "Characters should seem inevitable in retrospect, but surprising in perspect." At the end of the manuscript or screenplay, we should be satisfied. Even if the ending or climax is not what we expected or even wanted, it should be true to the characters.

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